Saturday, October 11, 2003

Letter 15: Buy a popok to use with joy

Octobre 2003
Yesterday morning, I agreed with two neighbors to go to Getap (on the silk road) to look at a huge Popok for sale (Popok is Armenian dialect for a walnut tree.). Arsen, my neighbor who has 2 children (a girl & a boy) in University in Yerevan, has bought an old truck which he drives for a living. He rebuilt the motor himself and converted it to diesel, which was to transport the Popok. And Vartkes (our new Rhéal neighbor, expert craftsman in all, who borrowed 400 USD from me to pay for his daughter's first year in Yerevan U) came along as my expert and to help load. At noon, we got in the mechanically fit blue Truck and coasted down the mountain (to save on fuel) till we found a gas station. Arsen had asked me to pay only for the cost of fuel, so he asked the attendant for seven liters of diesel (called by its Russian name "Salyarka"). I intervened. It made no sense to keep stopping to buy only 10 liters at a time , so I insisted they put in 40 litres instead . (The habit in Armenia seems to be to put in only a little at a time, probably because they can only afford a little.), I insisted that they put in 40 liters.

Five minutes later we were looking upward at our house to the east, perched on top of the mountain, dominating the silk road. Two minutes further, and we were there. On the bank of the Yeghegis river (an affluent of the main river of the region, the Arpa), stood this huge popok (Walnut) tree. It still had many of its leaves but they were changing to yellow. Its twin-brother had already been trimmed the previous year and had already born excellent fruits this year.

The owner, an 80-year-old man, introduced himself as "Napoleon Bonaparte Without an Army". I laughed; another of my neighbors has Napoleon for a first name. They offered us coffee, but we declined and we proceeded immediately to examine a branch that had already been cut. Vartkes checked all the knots in it and determined there was no rot. Arsen climbed the tree with this huge Soviet-made chainsaw and proceeded to trim the other branches. Napoleon's son brought his soviet made jeep (called Milice) with a long cable and pulled the falling branches away from the river.

After 2 hours we had cut and trimmed 9 more huge branches. Arsen brought his truck to the river bank so we can load it. One 3 meter long branch measured almost half a cubic meter and I thought there is no way we (5 men) could lift it in the truck. I asked Vartkes to go look for a crane. He went in the truck with Arsen, and Napoleon (pronounced "Napalyon") got close to me and spilled his life story, while I calculated the volume of each branch on my credit-card-size calculator (that Lena got me on Iberian Airlines on her way back from Cairo in 1987).

Napoleon's wife died suddenly 5 years ago from a heart attack. She was 10 years younger than him and healthy. He said that she always climbed the mountain faster than he could. He had remained a lonely widower since then. Although he has one son and six married daughters. Napalyon had been born and lives in "Gladzor", a famous medieval university on top of a mountain near our house. But he had gone with his family to live in the Russian north Caucasus during his childhood. We were now at his "dacha", a decrepit old one storey building with a small barn for a few cows and two fierce Caucasian huge dogs to guard it. The bear-like-looking dogs were chained with heavy chains. My attention was drawn to two metal sheds next to the barn, with all sorts of stainless steel tubing and pressure gages sticking out. I was told that in these sheds was one of two liquid azot factories in Armenia, still in operation. This plant supplies the artificial insemination stations in Eastern Armenia with liquid nitrogen to store sperm. But like everything else, business is in decline and they can hardly scratch a living with it.

Soon later Vartkes had returned and he gave me the thumbs-up. Two minutes later a huge old soviet truck with a crane arrived and went down to the river bank. We started tying the logs with a cable and lifting them on to the truck. The operation for the ten logs lasted half an hour after which I asked the crane operator how much he wanted. He asked for 2500 drams (5 USD. He said as he was leaving : "For whatever purpose you are acquiring this wood, may you use it with joy".

Napoleon insisted that we should join him for a drink before we left. We entered the decrepit building into a small room with two beds end to end and with a small electric cooker on the floor. Napoleon's daughter-in-law had set a table for us and roasted some peppers on the stove. Napoleon's life memories (photographs) were glued on the wall. I could see his father with his black Caucasian costume, his mother with her head kerchief and all his children at different ages. He described each photo one by one with emotion pride and joy in his voice. We had some freshly baked bread with the roasted peppers, some mashed potatoes, some panir (cheese) and some home-made Touti Oghi (eau-de-vie made from mulberries). Of course we had one toast after another and Napoleon closed with another toast that we may use this wood with joy! (ourakhoutyamp)

I can just imagine the cupboards, dining-room table and chairs, beds that we will make. How can they not bring us joy after all this?

We returned slowly to Yeghegnadzor and took the wood to the sawmill (located on the highway to Yerevan, next to the USDA goat project). It reminded me of the Bénards' sawmill, next to our farm. The popoks will be sawed tomorrow and we will store them in our attic for a few months to dry before we process them into furniture.

The sun has just risen and Ararat is splendid and bright from my window as I finish writing these lines.
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